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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

PBL on a leash?

So happy I found #PBLWORLD to follow this week on Twitter. Super thankful to everyone who takes the time to send out their tweets, pictures, blogposts, and much more, and for the technology that opens up our worlds.

I read Suzie Boss's tweet today of a comment from Sam Seidel, keynote speaker at PBLWorld. It sparked this blogpost.

I'm a huge advocate of PBL. When kids come back to see me years later when they are in high school or college, they inevitably bring up the projects they did or the funny 'stories' from their PBL activities/presentations. PBL is real and it's memorable. It's messy and unscripted. It takes time. It makes an impact on kids' lives.

Kids deserve quality and full-bodied PBL that is systemic in schools. ISSUE: PBL is on a leash right now. It's actively moving around and trying to run and go places and do great things with kids but two things are keeping it tied down. 

1. The leash holding back PBL is curriculum & high stakes testing.
    • The curriculum is broad and shallow for both 6th grade Science and SS classes I teach, attempting to prepare kids to excel on high stakes tests for NCLB and now similarly Race to the Top. It is this way in districts around me as well. However, thankfully  for kids and education the philosophical focus is shifting to digging deep and PBL. Will the curriculum change to meet it or will high stakes testing prevent the change that's needed for PBL to really work its magic?
    • The curriculum lacks real-world, real-community cred.
    • Teachers, parents, kids, and community have had little say in regards to what is in the curriculum and on the tests. Why is that the case? I have a lot to say and share, by the way and no one asked for my input! 
    • As a result of all this, teachers  are TIED TO all the stuff they must cover and end up feeling PULLED IN TWO DIRECTIONS. They want to do the right thing and cover everything their 'job' asks of them, and oh yes pray for good test scores and job security in some states, but they know this is not truly in the kids' best interests. I'd like to be free to lift off with my kids into the #PBLosphere in long-term projects I don't have to box into '3 days.' It's not true/effective PBL if you have to do that. I believe schools would be able to embrace the culture of trust and collaboration required for PBL if the curriculum changed to match PBL philosophy and high stakes testing were dropped for PBL and community measures. (see end of post)
2. PBL curriculum should be real-world and written based on this key question
What do kids need to know/do so they can walk outside their school/home and carry on an informed conversation about what they see around them?
They should be able to walk outside the school doors and formulate their own inquiry projects about major parts of their community. This type of learning leads to informed and CARING citizens. How can you care deeply for something you know very little about? 
    • ExamplesKids should be able to walk outside and talk about/explain the following: 
      • the main birds, trees, wildflowers, insects in their area. Most kids leave school and couldn't point out an oak vs a maple in the schoolyard. (Why this is NOT in the curriculum is startling to me.)
      • how, where electricity is generated and delivered to their home/school
      • how water gets to their homes and school; how water towers work
      • where water goes from homes and from storm drains; how water treatment plants work
      • local, state, federal representatives who serve them; how to seek out info on community questions/problems/solutions; how to set up community service programs. 
      • how people are cared for in their community; community service needs
Kids should KNOW the community they live in and be able to talk and problem solve about it.  In most cases that is NOT reality at all. All skills they do in isolation in school today would be used out of necessity and internal motivation in a PBL setup. The community is the built-in audience for PBL work!


  • What if all major utilities/sectors of the community were INFUSED into school curriculum and kids had a chance to dig into them, learn about them and from them, ask questions about how they work, solve problems in their communities that involve each of them and become LEADERS--under PBL umbrella? We could have true #communitycenteredschools fully invested in and part of the community fabric instead of #buildingswithwallslargelykeepingthechildreninandthecommunityout. 
  • What if our kids had the chance to become community-smart and community-literate and as a result become community leaders and advocates? With a PBL supported curriculum that is real-world and real-community, and freedom from high stakes testing, this is fully possible. Sounds #pblectric to me.
  • What if high stakes testing was not around? What a blessing that would be. It is so stressful to all involved and it brings little joy. It's about what you DON'T know; it's about how FAR you are from being 'good' or proficient or top of the charts. It's not about what you know, the focus is more on what you don't know. No results are shared with our kids from Missouri's MAP test. Just a score and mark for how far you are from the top basically.
  • What if  student and schoolwide PBL/Community-centered actions, service hours/programs, and outcomes replaced those high stakes simple number scores as a measure of school performance? That would be RESPECTFUL TO KIDS AND THE COMMUNITY IN MY VIEW, supportive of and nurturing to kids and families. 

This change to a deeper, drilled-down and, if it were up to me, community-centered curriculum will require a big shift in thinking and approach to both the curriculum and ways to measure school/student progress and growth. It will take talking to students, teachers, parents, administrators, and all sectors of the community.  It will require a radical new view of the role of testing frequency and high-stakes testing. High stakes tests and frequent testing based on rote memorization preclude real PBL. This will be a big job but it will be one that will transform our schools and COMMUNITIES.

I welcome info and insight to enlighten my midwest, middle-school viewpoint. I believe this issue stands in the way of passionate and wholehearted PBL implementation in schools. I would like to get involved and create the change needed to make it happen.